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  Food For Human & Planetary Health 

Date of Publish - Wednesday, 8th July 2020


Last week a group of doctors, animal welfare organizations and activists requested Prime Minister Narendra Modi to promote plant-based food in the country to boost the health and immunity of the citizenry. In a letter addressed to the Indian leader, they pointed out the research establishing the detrimental effects of mass production and consumption of animal-origin foods on human health and the environment, and future threats manifested in the COVID-19 outbreak.

The contention that the plant-based diet is safer and more sustainable is backed by research conducted by global bodies including the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, the World Economic Forum and the EAT-Lancet Commission. The letter also pointed out that several countries have already recommended their citizens to limit the intake of meat, eggs and dairy while increasing the consumption of plant-based foods.

Contrary to the popular belief that meat makes one healthy and strong, many of world’s top athletes have adopted a plant-based diet. The flood of endorsements by sportspersons has been backed by research; the findings of a major German study published last year found better nutritional adequacy in athletes following a plant-based diet. Studies from the Harvard Medical School support the claims that plant-based diets shorten recovery times, reduced muscle soreness, lessens joint pain and enabled quicker healing from injuries, contributing to career longevity.

The coronavirus pandemic has once again forced a rethink of prevalent food habits and their impacts on human health. The Chinese government was quick to shut down the wet markets where live animals are slaughtered and sold, and for good reason. The horrifying images and videos from the wet-markets in China betray a dysfunctional mindset with animals being skinned, boiled, burnt, and even eaten while they are still alive- images that are likely to haunt humanity forever. Unfortunately, inhumane conditions and cruelty are common at slaughterhouses and animal farms everywhere, including in India.

In the past too, coronaviruses from mammals and birds, have caused widespread infections among human populations, with Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) being the last major global outbreak. In fact, many other modern diseases including HIV, Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), Zika, Nipah and Ebola, to name a few, are zoonotic diseases that jumped from animals to humans. The global trade in animal products carry the inherent hazards of contamination with animal excrement, pus, blood, etc. The risks are multiplied in the extremely unhygienic conditions of wet-markets prevalent across Asia and Africa.

The latest viral outbreak from animal exploitation comes at a time when there is increased awareness of the benefits of a plant-based diet for human and planetary health. Numerous reports have been published about the health risks associated with the consumption of meat and other contaminated animal-origin products including dairy. Yet, the choice of food remains the most fundamental right of an individual, evolving within specific societal traditions.

The production of meat and other animal products places a heavy burden on the environment. The vast amount of fodder required for meat production is a significant contributor to deforestation, habitat loss and species extinction. Human food habits are intertwined with culture and religion and it is difficult to imagine a global consensus on what is a healthy and environmentally sustainable diet. However, making the switch to veganism one of the easiest and most effective ways to reduce our impact on the environment.

In January 2019, the EAT-Lancet Commission report was published after three years of extensive research, providing the first scientific targets for a healthy diet from a sustainable food production system. The findings revealed that current diets are pushing the Earth beyond its planetary boundaries, while causing ill health. The international panel of researchers recommended a drastic shift to a plant-based diet to maintain a healthy human population and a healthy planet.

The Veganism Impact Report from the UK revealed that there would be a 70% decrease in food-related emissions of CO2 if everyone were to go vegan, freeing up one billion hectares of the world’s land surface currently used for livestock. The 2010 United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report by the international panel of sustainable resource management advocated a global shift towards a vegan diet to save the world from hunger, fuel poverty and the worst impacts of climate change. The EAT-Lancet report also highlighted the role of diet and food systems on climate change.

The ‘Eat Right Campaign’ initiated by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) has already highlighted the necessity to prioritize healthy, sustainable, and safe food in the Indian diet. The proponents of the current initiative want the FSSAI to explicitly endorse and promote plant-based diets for public health, food security and sustainability.

The exponential growth of plant-based alternatives to popular food products, clothing and other utilities is an indicator of the change in mindsets among a significant minority. With environmental concerns taking root with the younger generations, the future of food is likely to be largely plant-based, for the larger interests of long-term human and planetary health.


Author :
Rituraj Phukan


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